Though major league baseball was integrated in 1947, it was May 1, 1951, before a black man played ball for a Chicago team. Before then blacks played lesser roles here. In the 19th century, the Chicago White Stockings–who later became not the White Sox but the Cubs–had a black mascot named Clarence Duval. “Whenever anything goes wrong,” a newspaperman wrote in the 1880s, “it is only necessary to rub Clarence’s woolly head to save the situation.” In 1913, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey hired a black trainer; a decade before, in the early days of the American League, he had exposed a Baltimore plot to disguise a black ball player as an Indian. In 1951, Sam Hairston and Bob Boyd played on the White Sox spring training squad, but they returned to the minors before opening day. Chicago baseball was finally integrated when a trade brought to town a “Cuban Negro” named Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Armas “Minnie” Minoso.
(Minnie wasn’t born Minoso. He picked that name up as a boy, when friends began calling him by his half-brothers’ last name. Teammates added the Minnie early in his professional career; he can no longer remember exactly when.)
The Tribune heralded Minnie Minoso’s arrival from Cleveland by reporting, “The Sox have something new to show,” a comment that now looks like one of the great understatements of the 1950s. Over the course of a 17-year major league career, Minoso hit .298 and became one of Chicago’s all-time favorite ball players. He’s still with the White Sox, in the community relations department, and in 1990 they may send him to the plate in a regulation game, which would make him the first player ever to bat in six different decades.
History was definitely in the air the afternoon Minoso debuted at Comiskey Park. Most of the 14,776 spectators–an unusually big weekday crowd–had never seen a black Cuban. Certainly they’d never seen a black face in a White Sox uniform.
The game began with Chicago’s 28-year-old rookie at third base and the Yankees’ 19-year-old rookie in center field. Joe DiMaggio had pinched a nerve during batting practice, and manager Casey Stengel put Mickey Mantle in the lineup. The blond Oklahoman hit his first big-league home run that day, plus a sacrifice fly and a grounder down the line that brought in two runs after going through Minoso’s legs.
Despite the error, despite a White Sox loss, Orestes Minoso won a place that day in the hearts of the south side. It was his with his first swing. He stepped to the plate in the first inning with a man on base and one out. Pitching was Vic Raschi, one of baseball’s best. Minoso turned Raschi’s second pitch into a 420-foot home run to straightaway center field.
He had played Negro League ball for the New York Cubans from 1945 until 1948. And Abe Saperstein–the owner-coach of basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters and a part-time scout for Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians–had convinced Minoso that the Negro Leagues were dying. Saperstein signed him, and the Indians shipped him out to Dayton, Ohio, in the Central League, a Class A circuit; some season ticket holders in Dayton demanded refunds, but they changed their minds quickly. Minoso hit .525 in the season’s 11 remaining games.
Back in that era the Indians were one of the most talented teams in baseball–the defending 1948 world champions. Larry Doby had integrated the Indians in ’47. Minoso got a brief trial in ’49, but was soon sent down to San Diego of the Pacific Coast League. Cleveland brought him back up in 1951, then shipped him to the city he called “Chaw-ka-go.” He told the Herald-American’s Wendell Smith–the first black journalist to cross over to the white press–that he didn’t plan to “seet” on the bench.
Chicago’s black baseball fans were ready for him. “The first demonstration by black people that I ever saw was on 35th Street before night games at Comiskey Park,” recalled sportswriter Bill Gleason, whose newspaper career began in 1942 as a Chicago Sun copyboy. “Shortly after Veeck signed Doby they began walking silently with placards. They wanted the Sox to sign a black ball player, or Negro as they said in those days. Cub fans believed almost religiously ‘Phil Wrigley will never sign a nigger.’ And Grace Comiskey, well she was a lot smarter than people gave her credit for. She did something politically astute. Black players were coming anyway. The protest provided her the reason to sign one.”
Minoso made the Sox the sixth of the 16 big-league teams to field a black ball player. (The Cubs became the eighth when Ernie Banks joined Wrigley’s ranks late in the ’53 season.)
The Defender editorialized: “The White Sox owners, the Comiskeys, have made it clear that they want a winning team and we earnestly hope that Minoso is able to make the contribution that experts predict he will. Negroes have already demonstrated to the satisfaction of the public and the players that the so-called color bar in major league baseball must be relegated to the museum of mistakes in our history along with the Confederate flag.”
“The colorful little Cuban,” as the Defender called him, was applauded but not embraced by black fans. Even though the black community sponsored a day for him late in the ’51 season, Minoso wasn’t exactly one of their own. Many blacks resented the fact that Cubans had been allowed to play major league ball since 1911. Not all were fair-haired Castilians–they got away with playing because their foreign heritage somehow made their mixed blood acceptable.
Still, Minoso, called major league ball’s first “Cuban Negro,” was too far beyond the pale. There was no place for someone so dark in the big leagues before Jackie Robinson (and Doby) integrated them in 1947. Minoso integrated the White Sox, but by ’51 the first wave of black pioneers already was established in the game.
So Minoso’s arrival was not as dramatic as that of some other black ball players. He was a symbol less of heroism than of simple racial progress. And he was different because the slave ship that brought his ancestors to the New World had stopped in Havana instead of Charleston. El negro cubano grew up a culture apart from el negro norteamericano. In North America, old English Protestant notions equated the blackness of hired flesh with the serpent that tempted Eve. English colonists slept with slave women but refused to recognize their own bastards. Racial separation was not as marked in Cuba. The wedding of Catholic and African cultures reflected ancient Mediterranean mores in which slave and master were equal in God’s eyes. Interracial marriage accounted for terms like prieto (dark), trigueno (less dark), and jabao (least dark of the darks).
The Pearl of the Antilles was a genetic melting pot that confounded baseball’s first purists.
In 1911, the business manager of the Cincinnati Reds returned from a vacation in Cuba with news of two great prospects he’d seen playing in the winter league there. For some reason, Americans believed that 78 percent of all Cubans had Negro blood. Did these two? Colored players–for reasons no one much wondered about–had been barred from organized baseball for two decades. Some Indians, some Mexican-Americans, even a Colombian had played in the majors, but no Cuban ever had.
The Reds’ owner, Gary Herrmann, wired a Havana sportswriter and asked if the two players were “authentic Caucasians.” Si, answered Victor Munoz. A Cincinnati reporter noted that “adding bronze to the Reds” could be controversial. “Many persons will think they are Negroes,” manager Clark Griffith told the Queen City’s Enquirer. “We will not pay any Hans Wagner prices for a couple of dark-skinned islanders.”
The deal was made and Herrmann led a small greeting party to the train station. Trouble was he didn’t know what the Cubans looked like. “Great Scott, we can’t have those smokers on our club,” Herrmann exclaimed as two Pullman porters walked by. The Reds’ owner was greatly relieved when two very white and disoriented men identified themselves as Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans.
“Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to introduce two of the purest bars of Castilian soap to ever wash upon our shores,” an Enquirer sportswriter wrote 75 summers ago. Almeida and Marsans rode the bench until manager Clark Griffith inserted them in the second game of a July 4 doubleheader against the Cubs. Here, at Chicago’s old West Side Grounds, baseball opened the door to Latin America. Within a decade, a dozen more Cubans reached the majors.
This buoyed the hopes of the Negro race. “With the admission of Cubans of a darker hue in the two big leagues, it would then be easy for colored players who are citizens of this country to get into fast company,” wrote New York Age sports editor Lester Walton near the end of the 1911 season. The National Negro League was formed in 1920 with the notion that its best players would soon land better jobs.
Baseball then was perhaps second to the flag itself as a symbol of American nationalism. Taking root in the post-Civil War era, it became one of the country’s great unifiers. “In exciting political campaigns, presidential candidates and brilliant orators will attract thousands,” noted Albert Goodwill Spalding, a Rockford-born pitcher who founded the National League (with assistance) and a sporting goods company (by himself). “But let there be a charge of half a dollar imposed, and only Base Ball can stand the test.”
America’s national game had never championed racial equality. Blacks had been barred from the organized baseball leagues as early as 1867. This “gentleman’s agreement”–adopted by the National League upon its formation in 1876–did not extend to every minor league. But a decade later, blacks were getting shut out everywhere. Habit became tradition after Cap Anson, the star player-manager of the Spalding-owned White Stockings, refused to let his team play an exhibition game if Newark’s black pitcher took the mound. George Stovey “complained of sickness,” sat out the game, and soon thereafter was released.
“The formative years of baseball as a professional sport coincided with the emergence of segregation as an American institution,” wrote Jules Tygiel in Baseball’s Great Experiment, the story of Jackie Robinson’s legacy. “The athletes’ antipathy for interracial competition reflected the “culture of professionalism’ emerging in late nineteenth-century America. Practitioners of different occupations formed organizations, established standards of performance, and erected barriers of entry. . . . The national pastime would be . . . the exclusive preserve of white athletes.”
Immigrant sons dominated the ranks. The Germans and Irish came first, followed by East Europeans and Italians. Each group took guff from the last one. Light complexions didn’t save the first Latin American generation from racial insults.
Adolfo Luque, a brilliant and volatile pitcher from Havana, nearly caused a race riot one August afternoon in 1923 at Cincinnati’s Redland Field. The curveball artist was having the best season of his career–he’d wind up with major-league-leading marks of 27 wins, 8 losses, and a 1.94 earned run average. But on this day neither he nor the second-place Reds were having any luck against the gloating league leaders from New York.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that someone “challenged the purity of his Castilian strain.” (Luque had “a purplish Latin American complexion” according to Westbrook Pegler, writing in the Chicago Tribune.) “In those days, all Cuban ball players were called ‘niggers,'” the late Ossie Bluege, a Chicago-born son of German immigrants who played 18 major league seasons between the world wars, once told me. “Luque was of the hot-blooded race. Those guys had their sense of national honor.”
“The Pride of Havana,” as Luque had been tagged, pitched until he could no longer take the abuse from the Giants’ bench. He threw down his glove, charged the bench, and began swinging at Casey Stengel. He attacked him again with a bat. Police had to clear fans from the field before the game could continue. Stengel was a likely culprit, but Giants manager John McGraw later admitted that a different bench warmer was actually to blame.
Luque was later traded to the Giants, and when he came out of their bullpen to beat the Washington Senators in the final game of the 1933 World Series, Clark Griffith, who now owned the Senators, decided to fund a scouting expedition to Cuba. The task was accepted by Joe Cambria, a minor league club owner who’d got his start in the laundry business. “Wet Wash Joe” launched a legendary scouting career by signing a native of Hershey Chocolate’s sugar plantation in Cardenas, Cuba.
Roberto Estalella was not the purest bar of Castile soap to float down the Potomac. His flat, broad nose and kinky hair raised eyebrows. “He had the retarding Negroid features of a Bantu tribesman,” a teammate told me. Another baseball man remembered him as “a freckle-faced, red-headed jig.”
But Cubans had been around the big leagues for 20 years. And in 1935 nobody prevented the Senators from putting this one at third base. Not that he felt welcome. A teammate recalled that opposing players told him, “You may be Cuban, but you’re a nigger sonuvabitch to me.” Former commissioner Bowie Kuhn, a Griffith Stadium scoreboard operator near the end of Estalella’s career, would recall, “I always heard he was partially black.” But Ossie Bluege remembered, “Estalella was a pudgy, happy-go-lucky sort of guy who struck people the right way.”
Preston Gomez, who later managed the Cubs, was among the cheaply acquired Cubans that Cambria shipped north. As foreigners, they were more or less immune from the military draft. But Gomez, who played briefly for the Senators in 1944, and a half-dozen other imports weren’t good enough to win even wartime pennants. In fact, the Senators were 64-90 in ’44.
The white press made jokes about the conga line in Washington’s dugout. Red Smith articulated the suspicion that “there was a Senegambian somewhere in the Cuban batpile where Senatorial lumber was seasoned.”
The black press attacked Griffith and his fellow owners for collusion. Column after column expressed outrage at Griffith for signing foreigners but refusing to sign up “men of color” in his own backyard. When the Senators were on the road, a Negro National League team called the Homestead Grays played in Griffith Stadium. Most major league clubs enjoyed similar arrangements. Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard–eventual Hall of Famers–hit more home runs under Griffith’s nose every season than that line of off-white Cubans could have in 20. “The Old Fox,” as Griffith was called, brushed off the critics by saying the signing of a black would ruin the Negro leagues.
Years later, Calvin Griffith denied that his uncle made money off black baseball, though rental of the ballpark surely must have helped defray expenses. Calvin, who took over the Senators upon his uncle’s death and moved them to Minnesota, also denied the charge that Bobby Estalella was black. “It was said that some of our Cubans had black blood, which made them black according to the standards of the world,” said Griffith. “They may have been black in the minds of blacks. But Bobby Estalella was not Negroid. He had very thin lips and was more yellow than anything else.”
I pressed him on the subject. Finally, the affably gruff man wavered. “Tell me, how the hell do you classify a Negro?”
“I’ve told lots of reporters that Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first black player,” said 75-year-old Howie Haak, the scout who has loaded Pittsburgh Pirate lineups with Latins for the last three decades. “There was Bobby Estalella. And Tommy de la Cruz who pitched for the Reds. He was blacker than my shoes. But nobody ever picked up on the story.”
“The racial barrier was absurd,” said Estalella. “It was only an issue for the Americans.” This warm, soft-spoken Miami resident was on the telephone reciting his best memories of a nine-year American League career. Nothing matched the pinch-hit grand slam off Detroit’s Bobo Newsom. Finally, I asked the question I had to ask. “Tiene usted sangre negra?” Estalella nearly shouted No! and soon hung up.
Cubans say otherwise. Minoso classified him as a mulato, a generic term for all nonwhites. Estalella, who was known across the island as “Tarzan,” is apparently un jabao, meaning the least dark of the darks. “Foreigners don’t get the chance to see all the members of one’s family,” explained Rudy Fernandez, a Negro League pitcher. Cuban ball players of the day were silent. They weren’t about to jeopardize a major league career that happened only because the man’s passport read “Cuba.”
Minnie Minoso was born in the province of Matanzas, Cuba, in 1922, the same year Cap Anson died. Anson, a native of Marshalltown, Iowa, who led our White Stockings to five pennants, is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery on 67th Street. His gravestone’s epitaph–“He played the game”–stands as silent testimony to those who weren’t allowed to–in part because of his racism. A quarter century after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Anson’s refusal to countenance blacks in any loftier position than team mascot helped drive them from the game. Meanwhile, in Cuba, the last bastion of Spain’s 500-year New World empire, the mechanization of the sugar industry was enabling plantation owners to set their own slaves free. In the cities, young men played el beisbol with passion. They swung their bates at la pelota, partly as a way of embracing American values in the face of a ruling order that would not survive the century.
Orestes Saturnino Arrieta Armas, growing up in the Matanzas sugar country, got no farther than the fourth grade. He swung a machete in one season and a bat in the other. Once during a sandlot game, according to Minoso’s memoirs, Extra Innings, a cow snatched his only shirt off a fence and wandered away chewing it. The game paused as Minoso flung a stone that gave the thief a permanent limp.
Minoso escaped 60 miles away to Havana, found work in a cigar shop, and became the Partagas tobacco company’s star third baseman. Then he caught on with Ambrosia chocolate’s semipro team. Joe Cambria spotted him and saw promise, but didn’t offer him a contract. Washington’s interest in Cubans was limited to the center of the island’s color spectrum.
Race also kept Minoso out of Cuba’s prestigious amateur leagues. He played four years of semipro ball. On November 29, 1944–his 22nd birthday–the telegram came from the Marianao team, one of Cuba’s four professional winter league teams. Minoso tried out and Marianao manager Armando Marsans put him at third base. Minoso was the Cuban League’s rookie of the year and he got an invitation to come north and join American baseball’s second class–the Negro leagues.
Black baseball was born in a day when newspapers were willing to print Anson’s rants about “chocolate-covered coons.” The first black team, a group of waiters at a Long Island, New York hotel, was formed in 1887. They called themselves the “Cuban Giants” and spoke an imitation Spanish on the field in the futile hope of passing as foreigners. In subsequent years, many teams would call themselves the Cubans. The name “stood for high quality ball and suggested an exotic land where better race relations existed,” wrote Donn Rogosin in Invisible Men, a history of Negro League ball players.
Minoso joined the New York Cubans, whose home was the Giants’ Polo Grounds. The team’s owner was Alejandro Pompez, a Tampa-born Cuban who’d helped form the Negro National League in 1920. From the outset, this league was an important outlet for Cuban baseball. Many of the island’s best players were too dark to slip under baseball’s color bar. Jose de la Caridad Mendez was nicknamed the “Black Christy Mathewson” for beating major-league clubs in Havana exhibitions. Cristobal Torrientes became the “Cuban Babe Ruth” by outslugging the Yankees’ Babe three homers to one in another Havana exhibition. Many Negro Leaguers considered Martin Dihigo, an eventual Hall of Famer in Cooperstown, the game’s most versatile player.
“Dihigo was a big man,” recalled Minoso, referring not just to his height. “He was big in all ways, as a player, as a manager, as a teacher, as a man. He was arrogant, but he was my idol.” Dihigo’s example inspired Minoso to become a pro. Forces beyond Minoso’s control enabled him to become a major-leaguer.
“One of the things that struck Branch Rickey about the Negro leagues was the way Satchel Paige developed into a matinee figure in the early 40s,” black sportswriter Ric Roberts once told me. “Satch led black baseball to money. M. O. N. E. Y. Money, honey. His showmanship and clever pitching talents turned the whole black population around in favor of baseball. On September 18, 1941, 36,000 people came to see him in Detroit’s Briggs Stadium. A week later, 31,000 people came out to Yankee Stadium. This was four years before Rickey signed Jackie.
“Major league baseball was driven to the black race when the availability of white talent was the thinnest in history,” said Roberts, who graduated from Atlanta’s Clark College in 1932 with a history degree and was the Atlanta Daily World sports editor before joining the nationally circulated Pittsburgh Courier. “World War II decimated the minor league ranks and created countless opportunities for white youth. After the war, a white boy had any number of choices open to him. This created a great lack of premium ball players. Branch Rickey was the most farsighted man baseball ever knew. He sensed that the cupboard of recruits was going to be bare.”
The color bar was really nothing more than a gentleman’s agreement among the owners. Bill Veeck learned as much in 1944 when he made the mistake of confiding to the commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, that he intended to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and sign blacks. With black soldiers dying overseas, black leaders wouldn’t have stood for the commissioner’s usual “detrimental to baseball” arguments. The approval of Veeck’s player contracts never became an issue. In his memoir Veeck as in Wreck, Veeck wrote that Landis made sure someone else bought the Phillies.
When Landis died in 1944, the owners chose Kentucky Senator A.B. “Happy” Chandler as commissioner. Chandler, who’d traveled the world to see the war’s battle sites as a member of the Senate Military Affairs Committeee, sensed the new reality. Black America was demanding increased opportunities across the board.
In April 1945, black sportswriters pressed several teams to give black ball players tryouts. A month later, Ric Roberts called on the new commissioner. Chandler, citing the efforts made by the black soldier overseas, said, “If it’s discrimination you’re afraid of, you have nothing to fear from me.” The story, published in the Courier, signaled a green light for the postwar sports boom’s most important development.
“It was an epic-making story but I didn’t realize what I was doing,” said Roberts. “Chandler put the old-timers on the spot. History was overtaking me and I didn’t even know it. Within two weeks, Rickey announced the formation of the United States Negro Baseball League. When his scouts came to Griffith Stadium the next month I thought they were looking at Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard for Rickey’s Brown Dodgers. There wasn’t a Negro League club that rented Ebbets Field. We had no idea what Rickey was really planning during that fertile chaos of war.”
The Dodgers’ president also cast a net throughout Latin America, where many disenchanted North American blacks had gone to play. He considered Silvio Garcia–a decidedly Negro Cuban–but decided the pressures would be too great for someone who couldn’t speak English. In October 1945, Rickey announced a Negro would join Brooklyn’s International League club.
Baseball shook. “It’ll never work because ball players on the road live close together,” said Rogers Hornsby, the Texan-born Hall of Famer.
In 1946, Jackie Robinson–UCLA’s first four-letter athlete and a U.S. Army second lieutenant–joined the Montreal Royals, a Triple A team whose own Mississippi-bred manager (Robinson later wrote) held the conviction that blacks were not human. The worst abuse came immediately, in spring training in Florida, where some games were canceled over Robinson’s presence in the Royals’ lineup. (A year later, the Dodgers and Royals set up camp in Havana.) Robinson stuck out the season, and the black shortstop led his team past Louisville in the Little World Series. After the final game, jubilant Montreal fans awaited their hero. A white sportswriter noted: “It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind.”
Robinson integrated major league ball after Chandler, ignoring a 15-1 owners’ vote, approved his contract with Brooklyn. “If Landis were commissioner Robinson couldn’t have played,” the 88-year-old Chandler recalled a couple days after throwing out 1987’s first pitch at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. “Landis wanted baseball segregated and totally white. He wasn’t acting on his own. He was doing exactly what the owners wanted him to do. Integration wasn’t wanted by the fellows who owned Negro League teams. They didn’t want the major leagues to break their leagues up. It was easy for white folks to keep blacks out when so many of their own people were opposed.”
The 1947 black all-star game brought Minoso to Comiskey Park for the first time. Some 48,000 black fans saw him play. Only 20,000 fans came out for the same all-star game four years later. Of course, the very best blacks were now in the majors. Minoso was winning the Sporting News’s AL rookie of the year award for 1951. Willie Mays, eight years younger, was breaking in with the NL pennant winners, the New York Giants.
“The year 1951 was fatal for the Negro Leagues,” remembered Roberts not long before he died in 1985. “There used to be a multiplicity of black baseball heroes who were the hope of our people.
“When the Giants brought up Mays from Minneapolis, Leo Durocher couldn’t believe his eyes. The boy smashed the ball all over the Polo Grounds during batting practice. The writers glorified his arrival. At the time, there were nine North American blacks in the majors. All were considered Negro ball players. But this Negro business didn’t follow Willie Mays’s name. From the day he came in, he was accepted as a ball player first and then as a Negro. His coming did much to increase the flow of blacks into the game. By 1955, there were 27.”
Minoso spearheaded the White Sox’s first legitimate pennant drive in a quarter century. He led the league in hitting for much of the ’51 season and wound up second at .323. He led the majors in triples with 14, and his league in stolen bases with 31 for the first of three straight years. Picked for last place, the Sox won 81 games, 21 more than they’d won in 1950. Manager Paul Richards told reporters that he’d overheard a player asking Minoso for a five-hit game. In his broken English, Minoso said he didn’t want five hits in one game but the game-winning hit in five games. Marveled Richards, “That tells the story of the White Sox better than I could express it.”
The team’s new whirlwind generated such anticipation that in time all Minoso had to do was reach base for the crowd to jump up cheering “Go, Minnie, go.” At home, where fans waved “Go Go Minnie” pennants, the Sox set an attendance record of 1,328,000. And for the first of many years, Minoso was their star attraction on the road.
A Jackie Robinson he wasn’t. On the field Minoso gave fans as much excitement as Robinson did wearing Brooklyn’s baggy flannels. But Minoso, like Willie Mays, was not one to threaten mainstream notions about the rightness of whiteness.
Defiance was in Robinson’s blood, though he followed Rickey’s instructions and kept his anger to himself for three years. By 1951, he had no qualms about openly accusing pitchers of throwing at him for racial reasons. “All colored players were thrown at for years, a practice arising from an old coach’s tale that Negroes didn’t have the guts to come up off the ground and dig back in,” Veeck acknowledged in his autobiography. This wasn’t so candidly admitted in 1951.
Minoso, ever gracious with the press, gave sportswriters a gallant explanation for why he was hit by more pitches than anyone else in the league. In the minors, he said, he’d once turned his hip into a pitch. The umpire refused to give him the base. So, Minnie dug back in and homered. When he touched home plate, the ump asked if he was happy about the way things turned out. He shook his head. “Give me my first base the first time.” “Minnie the Moocher,” as the scribes called this base stealer, had found a way to heist first.
Certainly, an aggressive batting style was one reason for all the brushback pitches. But it wasn’t the only reason that over his career pitchers hit him a league-record 189 times–and Minoso knew it. “Coalhouse,” as the opposition called him, walked into the White Sox clubhouse after one such incident and broke the tension by asking the trainer for white paint.
Minoso never let discrimination cut too deeply. Often, he picked up the ball that had just stung him and while trotting to first base rolled it to the mound. One Red Sox pitcher admitted to getting a special kick from throwing fastballs at black bodies. In Extra Innings, Minnie doesn’t name him, but relates that the Deep South native, impressed by his even-tempered prey, finally apologized. “You’re a great symbol for America,” he told the Cuban.
Only Casey Stengel gave sportswriters as much colorful copy. Minnie was once asked about the Fenway Park outfield. “This little place sometime make me dizzy. Chicago plenty more room. Here not so much run, not so much throw. Here not so far to dugout. Nice. I like here. Left field Yankee Stadium I no like. Can see no ball. This is best, that worst.”
But of course English was his second language. His Spanish was fine. During a 1954 game in New York, Stengel told Willie Miranda to start riding Minoso when Minoso entered the batter’s box. The Cuban Yankee stepped to the top of the dugout stairs. Pretending to issue a Spanish-language razzing, Miranda disclosed the Old Professor’s tactics. Minoso listened, shook a fist at his countryman, and got angry at a pitch. He tripled and came home with the winning run. Stengel, who was rarely fooled, went home thinking that bench jockeying caused the Yankee defeat.
The Cuban Comet enjoyed his greatest inning during the 1957 All-Star Game in Saint Louis. Stengel, the AL’s manager, sent him out to left field for Ted Williams in the eighth. Minoso doubled home Al Kaline in the ninth. In the bottom of the inning, he snuffed an NL rally by throwing out Gus Bell at third and snatching Gil Hodges’s game-ending line drive. He then raced in and got Stengel to autograph the ball.
The six-time All-Star never played in a World Series. He was in Cleveland when the Sox won the ’59 pennant. Sox fans gave him a rousing cheer the day he hit two homers for the visiting Indians.
The south side’s all-time favorite outfielder was traded back to Chicago before opening day 1960. He was 37 years old. In his fourth at-bat, Minoso hit a grand slam. Kansas City tied the game in the seventh, but Minnie’s second homer, a bottom-of-the-ninth shot into Comiskey’s upper deck, saved the day.
The Sox shipped him to the Saint Louis Cardinals in 1962. Minnie was not meant to be a National Leaguer. In May, he crashed into a wall chasing Duke Snider’s line drive. A fractured skull and broken wrist ended his season. In 1963, the Cards traded him to Washington, where he was platooned and hit only .229 for the year. When the Senators dropped him, the White Sox picked him up.
Minnie started the ’64 season as a pinch hitter, was sent down to Indianapolis, and rejoined the Sox in September as Chicago’s first black coach. The Sox cut him at the season’s end, after losing the pennant by a game.
Mexico called. There, he played and/or managed in summer and winter ball for nine years. In 1970, at age 47, he led the Pacific League in hitting. In 1976, after buying the Sox, Veeck’s first publicity stunt was to bring Minoso home to 35th and Shields.
Barnum Bill told Roger Kahn that he understood why some Sox players objected to Minnie’s presence in the batting cage: “You take Minoso at 53 hitting the ball into the left-field stands and here’s a guy of 23 who can’t get the ball to the warning track. I’d want to bar him too.” Minoso was activated for three games. In his eighth at-bat as designated hitter, he became the oldest player to get a major league hit.
Chicago’s cubano was 57 years old when he went up to bat in the final game of the 1980 season. His pop out made him only the second man to play in five decades. Nick Altrock, a pitcher who became a professional baseball clown, had been the first, breaking in with the National League’s Louisville Colonels in 1898 and going up to the plate for a single at-bat in 1924, ’29, and ’33.
Today, Minoso looks to 1990 and the chance of setting an unparalleled standard in longevity. “I get $1,000 for every old-timer game. By playing about seven times a year I make as much playing baseball now as I did in 1951 as a rookie. The insurance people say I’m the biggest attraction because I’m the only one who slides.”
Equitable Life sponsors a series of three-inning exhibitions that take place before major-league games. Another group, Grand Old League Inc., organizes seven-inning games in cities lobbying for major league franchises.
Mark Childers, Grand Old League’s vice president, won’t call Minoso the best. “But he’s definitely a fan favorite. People come out to see Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and a Willie Mays basket catch. The games are very relaxed. If a player hits a double, he might stretch it out to a double. Minnie once hit a clear double and stretched it out to a triple. He got on his horse, ran out from under his cap, and slid into third. The crowd went wild. Every time we have a game, we want him there.”
“Minnie was always a darling of the white people,” said sportswriter Bill Gleason. “He was such a productive, brilliant player. He had a good political sense of how not to offend anybody and handled the press very intelligently. In the early 50s, Warren Brown of the Herald-Examiner turned him into a public figure. He coined the phrase O’Restless Minoso, which was a commentary on his habits. Minnie could stay out all night, pretend he was at mass, and then go out and get seven hits in a doubleheader.”
“My favorite Minoso story occurred in Dayton,” said Si Burick, a Hall of Fame sportswriter who wrote for the Dayton Daily News from 1929 until he died last year. “Joe Vosmik, a major league outfielder for many years, was managing the team. On a 3-1 count or something, he signaled for Minoso to take a pitch. Minnie swings and knocks the ball over the fence for a home run that won the ball game. In the dugout, Vosmik asked Minoso if he’d seen the take sign. ‘Yes,’ Minnie said. ‘Me take swing at ball.'”
“Minnie welcomed you with an affable, friendly, and outgoing approach,” recalled Milton Richman, the late UPI sports editor and columnist. “I remember asking him once about a ball player who the White Sox were about to bring up from the International League. I asked Minnie, had he seen him? He said yes. I said, ‘How would you rate him as a scout, Minnie?’ He thought about it a minute and just as naturally as a fellow peeling a peanut, he said, ‘Oh, he’s just another nigger ball player.’ Now, Minnie didn’t mean that as any kind of put-down to his race. He’s black himself. But he said it so naturally. That’s the thing. Minnie was a complete natural.”
“He’s accepted in the same way that a Latin black like Pele is accepted around the country,” explained John Reyes, a Colombian-born Minoso contemporary who has written Chicago Defender sports columns for 20 years. Reyes arranged for the city to proclaim Minnie Minoso Day when the White Sox retired his number in 1983. “He was a hustling type of ball player who played baseball how it ought to be played. He’d crash into the wall or dive for a ball. Getting injured wasn’t something that worried him at all. He stayed in the same town, an old baseball town, and is remembered. You say Walter Payton and Minnie Minoso–people will tell you first about Minoso.”
Minnie, who once appeared in magazine ads for Marlboro cigarettes, smokes the same brand 30 years later. He was great public relations for Old Style beer while a friend named Jerry Campana owned a local liquor distributorship. There have been no offers since then. A 1985 Crain’s Chicago Business story on endorsements for pro athletes called him “a missed opportunity.”
“Minnie Minoso and Gale Sayers are the most glaring examples of the stupidity of Chicago advertisers,” said Gleason. “Sayers was the most effective and charismatic guest we ever had on our TV show. And Minnie is an immortal in this city. I’ve seen Joe DiMaggio go striding through Shea Stadium and be bombarded with autograph requests from little kids who weren’t even born when he played. Minnie’s like that. He’s Chicago’s Joe DiMaggio.”
Chicago’s DiMaggio earns his living by making 250 appearances for the Sox each year. I accompanied him for a week last fall and am sure of one thing: people still need him and still feed him now that he’s 64.
Minnie Minoso has made a career out of not appearing to dislike anybody. That isn’t quite how he is. For example, he doesn’t care for Angels manager Gene Mauch. He believes that Mauch, while managing the Twins, was not gracious in his treatment of Cuban coaches Tony Oliva and Camilo Pascual. And then last spring, Rod Carew wound up retiring because Mauch wouldn’t help sign the 40-year-old Panamanian to a new contract.
And he disapproves of Jim McMahon. The White Sox’ number 9 said the Bears’ number 9 is “a kiss-my-feet kind of star.”
But his amiability is his companion in life. One Sunday morning last October, he was steering his Toronado south on I-57. It didn’t much matter what he’d be doing at the Illinois Walking Horse Association charity in Springfield; he just had to be there at noon. Self-consciousness doesn’t afflict the one person who showed up at Bill Veeck’s funeral last year wearing a White Sox uniform.
He figured he’d be asked to ride a horse. He hadn’t done that in a decade, not since leaving Mexico, where fans called him el charro negro. As a boy, “the black horseman” rounded up the cows every morning, wearing a cowboy hat and a machete around his waist. This day, he planned to wear the suit that hung on a hook in the backseat.
“I know Illinois better than I know Cuba,” he said in Spanish. “See all this black earth? It’s very profitable. You go to Mexico, for example the state of Vera Cruz, and you see huge cows. Why? Because the land produces. Black earth holds moisture. Go to Guadalajara where the earth is dry and you’ll see animals as skinny as my baby finger.”
We whizzed by an exit sign for Morris and Dwight, which got Minoso talking about pitchers Jack and Gooden. Passing the El Paso exit, he said, “We must be in Texas.” Pekin passed by. “We must be in Russia, I mean China.” The town of Shirley reminded him of the actress Temple. Or, from Minnie’s mouth, “TAME-play.”
Minoso has not been back to Cuba since 1961, when he came north for spring training after his 14th season in Cuba’s winter league. All Cuban ball players who did so were branded by Fidel Castro’s new government as “counterrevolutionary traitors.”
He nodded toward the central Illinois farmland. “See those cows over there? If they were yours and this was Cuba, you couldn’t have one for dinner.” His opposition to collectivism made Minoso a natural choice to accompany countryman Jose Cardenal in 1985 on a U.S. State Department goodwill tour of Central America. War in Nicaragua has made Minnie a fan of Diario las Americas, a right-wing, Miami-based daily.
Minoso smiled. “I was the only Cuban big leaguer to take home a new Cadillac each fall. And President Carlos Prio Socarras signed a decree that allowed me to bring in eight sedans without paying a tariff. In the revolution, I lost the Minoso Minoso Taxi Company, two apartment buildings, and a $75,000 home. My sister lives in the house. If not for Castro I’d still be in Cuba. I’d be better off economically, but not nearly so popular in this country.”
His license plate helps. “I wanted to have just my number 9, but Mayor Daley’s wife or somebody had it. Then I was thinking MM or OM or MM9 or OM9. Then I was thinking of OMINOSO or MMINOSO. Or maybe MMINOSO9. But that was too long. Finally, a friend with the state government in Springfield got me MINOSO. I didn’t have to pay.”
We found our way to the State Fair Coliseum, where country folks in blue jeans and English riding suits were leading around their Tennessee walking horses. With huge shoes strapped onto their front hoofs, these creatures looked as uncomfortable as women in spiked heels.
Minnie had never seen anything like it. He went to the office and introduced himself with one of his standard lines about having tried to do something with his face for 60 years. Behind the counter was a woman from a Chicago Alzheimer’s disease foundation. She smiled and sighed. “After looking at horses all weekend, you look great.”
He stepped into the Indian summer sunshine. An elderly man approached, a transistor radio pressed against his ear. The Bears were trailing the Vikings 13-0. He turned off the radio, stuck out his hand, and smiled. “I saw you play a few times, Minnie.” He introduced a high school player who clearly hadn’t. The boy stood awkwardly as Minoso made small talk. “I got plenty tan already. I must get outta the sun.”
Soon he was in the saddle, trotting around the oval track and waving to the sparse crowd. A high school color guard twirled batons and tossed baseballs as a scratchy tape played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Minnie made some remarks that the sound system made even less comprehensible than usual.
The White Sox’ official celebrity began making appearances in 1951. I give you my life is the effusive public posture of a man whose pidgin English–in Bill Gleason’s opinion–is slightly orchestrated. The way Minnie talks is surely part of his act. Two nights before meeting Tennessee walking horses, he made an after-dinner speech at the Westin O’Hare. The 400 people there didn’t have to understand every word to feel moved.
“I’m not crying because I’m chicken but because you hit me deep in my heart.” He stopped talking to mop his face with a handkerchief. It was Maywood’s Minnie Minoso Day. And he was man of the year–according to the Proviso-Leyden Council for Community Action–on account of his inspiring presence last summer on Maywood’s Little League diamonds. “You don’t recognize my actions as a ball player but because of myself. And how I acted off the field. To be great you have to be all the way around. Any man say not cry, he’s lying because he’s not a man if you don’t cry. Now invite me back. Rain or shine, even to cut the grass.”
He faces every topic without a note and never fails to bring laughter or tears or both. Introduced once by Lura Lynn Ryan, wife of Lieutenant Governor George Ryan, Minnie said he’d often shared the podium with her husband. “This time he send his wife, so he must trust me.” Moms, dads, and students of Kaneland Junior and Senior High School laughed. However, during his 20-minute speech, I doubt anyone understood half of what he said.
Talking was the least of his tasks that warm Sunday in Springfield as he handled raffle tickets and trophies. Dull. But he smiled for every photograph. His assignment was to appear to be enthralled by horses born to strut.
After the last ride was judged, Minnie signed a couple more autographs, shook a few more hands, and packed the program away inside the Toronado’s loaded trunk. An old man ambled up and said something about Tommy Kramer having stuck it to the Bears. Minnie answered by asking about the Mets; he’d forgotten that network television won’t let the World Series happen in daylight anymore.
During the drive home, darkness reduced Minnie and me to two voices.
“El fanatico es el dueno del espectaculo,” said the community relations man. His notion that baseball strikes are bad because the fan–“the owner of the spectacle” as Minnie put it–might not return to the park is the sort of thing persons in his position were hired to espouse.
“Que va!” I said. “The fan is a drug addict. Boycotts fail because the fan needs his fix of hits, runs, and errors. Baseball isn’t like a brewery. You can change brands of beer, but if you’re hooked on baseball you’ve got no choice but to take what the owners feed you.”
“Tienes razon,” he agreed. But I doubt that my argument has affected the drift of his speeches. Groups pay for an unchallenging personality. Minoso’s role is yakking minstrel; people laugh at him as much as they laugh with him.
Several years ago, in front of an audience of Sox fans, he pointed to the scar on his upper lip. “My friend say, ‘Gee whiz, Minnie. You have tough girlfriend, she bit you.’ No, that was Mr. Lary of Detroit. They think I used to play baseball. I not. The ball used to play with me more than I play with her. I was so dumb. I used to let the ball hit me more than I hit her.”
Spanglish, which Minnie made into an art form, appears in the sports page these days only when a Latin ball player does something stupid and the writer wants to make him look even stupider. No one was more irritated by its selective use than the late Roberto Clemente. This Puerto Rican thought U.S. citizenship should mean acceptance. Certainly, it entitled him to express outrage at what he perceived to be portrayal as a stereotypical jungle native. Phonetic quoting gradually disappeared as Latins became too valuable to be so blatantly denigrated. By leading the Latin charge for respect during a brilliant career with the Pirates, Clemente became the Latin Jackie Robinson.
Minoso is the Latin Satchel Paige. Both had amazing staying power at least partly because each knew how to make white folks laugh. “Don’t look back, somebody might be gaining on you” was Satch’s rule in life. He once explained his most famous line to a white reporter: “When you look back, you know how long you’ve been going and that might just stop you from going any farther.” Besides, why would a black man like Paige have wanted to dust off the rearview mirror? This Alabaman wouldn’t want to know if a white-hooded, rope-waving lynching party was within a stone’s throw. Minnie Minoso lived with racism for too long to feel offended by its existence in a foreign country that paid him a lot of money to do something he loved.
“I don’t think anybody should get mad because he’s black or white,” he said. “I’m born this way and I’m going to die this way. I never let those things interfere with my life and way of thinking. Get mad for what?”
The white world behaves differently for Minnie Minoso. One afternoon we were out in Kane County, for Minnie’s speech against substance abuse at Kaneland Junior and Senior High. With two hours to kill, we stopped in a small-town gas station to ask directions to the nearest bar. A farmer saw the MINOSO plate, honked, and jumped out of his truck. His name was Lyle. He had chew under his lip and the look of a man who could find either of Elburn’s two bars with his eyes shut. “Let me shake your hand, Minnie,” he said before sending us to Cotti’s.
Silence overcame the bar’s 25 inhabitants when a black man in a brown suit appeared. As we sat down and ordered Old Styles, the most discernible noise came from Channel Five’s five o’clock news. Lyle walked in, Minnie bought him a drink, and the place came back to life.
“I’ve lived in Elburn for eight years and this is only the second time I’ve seen a black person in Cotti’s,” said the man sitting next to me. “The cleaning lady for one of Elburn’s rich people came in once, had a glass of wine, and left. This place was as quiet when Minoso walked in. Then some people recognized him. If somebody laid a hand on him now, everyone in this bar would come to his defense.”
“My fans have me in their own hall of fame,” Minnie has grown accustomed to saying. He played in Cooperstown in the 50s and returned in 1983 to represent White Sox owners at Luis Aparicio’s induction ceremony. “I was one of the few players there signing autographs,” he said. “A lot of the fans told me, ‘You should be there, too.'”
Bill James, author of the annual Baseball Abstract, believes Minoso deserves this recognition. James told the Sun-Times last year that while he was growing up in Kansas, his favorite player was the White Sox star.
“I don’t think his stats were quite good enough,” said Bill Gleason. “Besides, Minnie is receding into the past because with each passing year the selectors become younger.”
Minnie Minoso led a generation of Latin players that included Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and the Dominican Juan Marichal. In Cuba, Minnie was as big as Joe DiMaggio for teenagers like Luis Tiant, Tony Perez, Mike Cuellar, Bert Campaneris, Jose Cardenal, and Tony Oliva. “I always thought of him as the first idol,” said Oliva, one of many Cubans whose baseball career made him an exile. Oliva, Joe Cambria’s last Cuban find, had a brilliant career in Minnesota, where he’s now the Twins’ batting coach. “My biggest regret in baseball is that I didn’t play in the Cuban winter league. Minoso did. There was a saying: Cuando Minoso batea de verdad, la bola baila la cha-cha-cha.”
Minoso–pronounced “me-NYO-so”–might have made the ball dance the cha-cha-cha. But about the contributions of Latin America the chroniclers might as well say ha ha ha. The mythology of the national pastime hasn’t been constructed to celebrate the game’s dependence on foreigners. Accordingly, the integration legend is strictly black and white. Reduced to the simplest of plots: Rickey gave Robinson a chance and, by God, the man proved his race to be a winner.
During the 60-year-long era of segregation, black ball players had to play the year around. In 1906, the first contingent of North American blacks went to Cuba to play in its 28-year-old winter league. Ric Roberts said: “The capital never would have presented itself to form the National Negro League in 1920 without that Caribbean nursery garden.”
The winter leagues–a vital part of organized ball today–took root in the Spanish Caribbean and Mexico partly because they gave fans a chance to see native sons who were making names for themselves in the United States. And these early Cuban major-leaguers helped make 1947 possible. In 1911, Havana newspapers sent correspondents north to follow Almeida and Marsans. In 1923, when Dolf Luque was the best pitcher in baseball, the Diario de la Marina sports editor encouraged a huge turnout at Havana harbor to show “gratitude for his noble and imponderable effort that he has just produced in the powerful and fraternal Yanquilandia.”
Ted Williams, who knew life would have been harder had he grown up with his mother’s Mexican surname, opened minds in 1966 during his Hall of Fame introduction speech. “I hope that someday Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given a chance.”
Minoso made the most of his chance. “If Minoso had had the proper teaching and the intense determination,” Williams once said, “he would have made Stan Musial look like a fungo hitter.” Maybe Orestes, at age 12, should have looked for a good Little League program instead of taking the job of player/manager for a team that made its home on a sugar mill cow pasture.
Imagine what his career might have been had Cambria signed him in 1943. Minnie could have been amassing triples, stolen bases, and runs batted in for a half-dozen seasons before baseball writers snubbed him by choosing Yankee second baseman Gil McDougald as their 1951 AL rookie of the year.
“So what that I didn’t start in the majors until I was 28?” he said somewhere that autumn night on I-57. “Luis Aparicio never had 1,000 runs batted in. Eddie Mathews didn’t hit .280. Willie McCovey wasn’t a good fielder. Hoyt Wilhelm never had 20 wins in a season. I agree with what Juan Marichal told you. There is a lot of favoritism, politics. I don’t want it after I’m gone. If I’m going to get a brand new car, don’t give it to me later. Give it to me now.”
He was talking faster. “Not long ago, I was driving home to my apartment at Irving Park and Lake Shore Drive. Some undercover cops stopped me. I hadn’t done anything wrong. But they started asking me questions and looking through the car. I said they wouldn’t be doing this if I were Jody Davis. You wouldn’t be doing this if I were Sandberg. You wouldn’t be doing this if I were Sutcliffe. You’re doing this because I’m black, have nice clothes, and drive a nice car. Call the police superintendent. Call the president of the United States, the governor, the mayor. They’ll tell you who I am.”
Our Man Minnie has the kind of charm that causes people to honk horns, wave, shake his hand, ask for an autograph, or simply wish him well. Earlier, in Springfield’s broad daylight, we had walked across a parking lot toward a restaurant’s front door. Fifty feet away, a middle-aged woman stopped dead in her tracks. “Minnie Minoso,” she exclaimed. “You look like you can still play.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.